Pesticide residues in Indian soft drinks

Posted: 11 February 2004

A committee of Indian MPs has supported the findings of a leading environment organisation that potentially harmful levels of pesticide residues were present in 12 soft drinks, including Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

Last August, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) analysed the contents of 12 cold drink brands sold in and around Delhi. They were tested for organochlorine and organophosphorus pesticides and synthetic pyrethroids, all commonly used in India to control insects in agricultural fields and homes.

Human risk

Drinks under the microscope included, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Diet Pepsi, Miranda orange, Miranda lemon, Blue Pepsi, 7-up, Coca-Cola, Fanta, Limca, Sprite and Thums Up.

Pesticide residues in soft drink brands in India. © CSE
Pesticide residues in soft drink brands in India. © CSE
PESTICIDE RESIDUES IN SOFT DRINK BRANDS IN INDIAClick on the thumbnail for a larger version.
All contained residues of four extremely toxic pesticides and insecticides: lindane, DDT, malathion and chlorpyrifos. And all contained levels that far exceeded limits set by the European Union (EU). CSE claimed that "each sample had enough poison to cause - in the long term - cancer, damage to the nervous and reproductive systems, birth defects and severe disruption of the immune system."

The most common of the pesticides was lindane found in 100 per cent of the soft drink samples tested. On average its concentration in all brands was 21 times higher than the EU limit. It is a known carcinogen that damages the human central nervous and immune systems.

Miranda Lemon topped the chart among all the tested brand samples with a pesticide concentration 42 times the European limit.

The 15-member Joint Parliamentary Committee on Soft Drinks, which included MPs from both the government and the opposition, confirmed the findings of CSE's investigation, stating that "CSE stands corroborated on its finding pesticide residue in carbonated water." It is the first-ever JPC to have convened on public health in India since Independence.

In its own tests carried out by two governmental laboratories, results showed pesticide residues 1.2 to 5.22 times higher than the EU limit in 75 per cent of the samples. But while the government labs have found lower residual levels, their report makes clear that their results and the results of CSE are not comparable because the sample batches and lots were not the same in the two cases. Differences in residual levels, therefore, were possible.

In its report, the Committee criticised Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, manufacturers of the 12 products on trial, which have strenuously rejected the allegations. Both corporations repeated the assertion that their drinks in India are "absolutely safe" and that their products meet international standards.

In its response the Committee said, "the assertion of the soft drink manufacturers that their product is within the EU limits has also not proved to be correct for 100 per cent of the samples." It also said that claims made by the Cola companies in recent advertisements that their products are safe to drink are tantamount to "misleading the public" and that such "misinformation" should not be allowed in the future.

New safety standards

According to CSE, Indians consumed over 6.5 billion bottles of cold drinks in 2001, enough for each Indian to consume six bottles each year. "In Delhi, consumption is a whopping 50 bottles each year."

In view of its 300-page report, the Joint Parliamentary Committee has recommended that the government set new stringent safety standards for carbonated drinks, similar to those recently set for bottled water. India's current archaic regulations do not provide any scope for regulating pesticides in soft drinks.

The Vice President for Coca-Cola in India, Sanjiv Gupta, said his company would comply with "whatever new standards the government decides to bring".

CSE director Sunita Narain, welcomed the report: "it endorses our agenda that the issue of public health care and food safety is central to the country."

Regulating pesticides

CSE says the recommendations that the government adopts stringent and health-based standards for pesticide residues in soft drinks is an important step. It would make India the first country in the world to mandate standards and regulate pesticide residues in the finished product.

As yet, CSE says, most industrialised countries have standards for heavy metals and such-like substances in the final soft drink; but they do not have any specific standard for pesticide residues. This is because they do not have a contamination problem and their water and agricultural raw commodities are relatively clean.

"But with pesticide residue contamination growing in our parts of the world it becomes imperative to set standards for the processed food industry. The government has already announced that it will set these standards."

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